Adapting a Legend: Do Your Math, Son!
By Desmond Reddick
06 November 2006 — Being National Novel Writing Month, I've decided — instead of working on the two novels I should be writing — to deliver a few ruminations on what I consider to be the greatest horror novel of all time and its various filmic adaptations.
Richard Matheson's I Am Legend is widely considered to be the first and best modern horror novel; the author draws readers into the morbid monotony of Robert Neville's daily life with this stirring and ominous opening line: "On those cloudy days, Robert Neville was never sure when sunset came, and sometimes they were in the streets before he could get back."
An outbreak of vampirism has Robert believing he is the last man alive. We follow him as he spends his days murdering sleeping vampires and his nights boarded up in his house sucking whisky from the bottle and listening to Beethoven in the faint hope to drown out his vampire neighbours. His former best friend, Ben Cortman, spends the better part of the novel banging on the walls shouting, "Come out, Neville."
The rage, sadness and alcoholism, coupled with the isolation, make this the bleakest damn book I've ever read. Add in being completely surrounded by bloodthirsty vampires and the best ending to a horror novel that I've ever read and you have a classic. To sum it up in one sentence: George Romero says this was the impetus for Night of the Living Dead. You get that I like the book right?
In 1964 Vincent Price assumed the Robert Neville role in the first film adaptation of the book: The Last Man on Earth. Only, the character is named Dr. Robert Morgan, a scientist who failed to cure his daughter of the disease that eventually wiped out humanity. It also happens to be high on my list of favourite horror films. Price plays the desperate alcoholic perfectly, and goes much of the beginning of the film without uttering a word onscreen (there is, if I'm not mistaken, a voiceover). Price spends his days much like Neville; he gathers garlic from the supermarket, murders vampires and dumps their bodies in a fire pit, sharpens stakes and drinks whisky. Price is the perfect choice for the role of the everyman who becomes the only man.
The film is an Italian production and most of the actors are Italian, making Price is the only actor I recognize. Price can't help but steal the show as always. He is awkward and dashing at the same time; both meek and flamboyant, too. He is a legend who will be further dissected when I get around to Corman's Poe movies.
Matheson wrote the screenplay but, unhappy with how the movie turned out, had his name removed from the film. The only flaw I could mention would be the mishandling of the ending. Explaining it, however, would spoil both movie and book, so I'll refrain. I will say that there's a certain mythic quality missing from the film. If only Matheson knew what dreary future lay ahead.
Seven years later, the makers of Omega Man tossed out the entire novel except the skeleton of the story: the "last man" idea. Charlton Heston, post "damn dirty apes" / pre "Soylent Green is people," takes the lead as Colonel Robert Neville in a glitzy, bombastic and very 70s rendition of I Am Legend. To its credit the film fleshes out the bad guys much better than the previous adaptation, but does so by changing them into albino mutants instead of bloodthirsty vampires. However, part of the charm of Last Man on Earth was that we didn't see much of the vampires and I think that, in Omega Man, we see too much. While the film does explore some interesting areas in the way of a Day of the Dead-like condemnation of weapons proliferation (in this case biological warfare), it fails to capture the desperation and solitude of the original adaptation. The movie is terribly flawed but extremely campy.
Just when you thought you escaped unscathed from the Abyss of Adaptations, 2007 will see I Am Legend brought to the big screen. Rumours floated around a few years ago about Ridley Scott directing Arnold Schwarzenegger in the lead role to the universal cringing of Matheson fans everywhere. And now, in a move cementing the fact that studio executives have their heads so far up their asses they're coming out of their necks, Will Smith will take the role of Robert Neville... shitting all over it under the direction of Francis Lawrence. Who's Francis Lawrence? Take a minute to go look at IMDB.com and check, I'll wait…
You're back? Good. Yeah, yeah, Constantine was passable but how about those J-Lo and Britney Spears videos, huh? There is a reason that, in upcoming reviews, I'll be covering independent and foreign films: modern Hollywood horror sucks.
I may view it, if only to take the opportunity to shit all over this film when it's released. It's my favourite horror novel after all. How bad can it be? Really want to know? Having read the screenplay, I can tell you there's a scene where Will Smith stands in the sunshine and places on a pair of shades before kicking some mutant ass. There's also the pointless radio show which he broadcasts. But we should have some faith in a film written by the same writer of Lost in Space and Batman & Robin, right?
It makes me wish for a film depicting the Governator reclaiming Los Angeles from "vompiyas." At least there would be some sort of backwards political allegory to the thing. And Ridley Scott has a more impressive resume than Constantine and MTV's Making the Video. And it would be good for a laugh or two.
The sad thing is that they have finally made a film called I Am Legend that seems more like a remake of Omega Man than anything else. I don't have any hopes for this film whatsoever, so it could even possibly end up impressing me. I'll watch it and review it for you, dear reader, but if Will Smith busts out some Big Willie style dance moves then I'm walking out.